Neil Young’s Ditch Trilogy, Pt. 4

Neil Young – On the Beach

Sooner or later it all gets real – from Neil’s track, Walk On

Today we revisit On the Beach, the final link in Neil Young’s Ditch Trilogy, which put on full display not only Young’s state of mind in the early 1970’s, but also the zeitgeist of America.  As discussed in my previous post, while On the Beach was the last of the three to be recorded, it was actually the second to be released, as well as the long-awaited studio followup to Harvest.  Therefore, even though the songs weren’t quite as caustic as Tonight’s the Night and the production a little cleaner, it was still a shock to fans expecting a radio-friendly offering.


The album was recorded over two months, from February to April 1974.  By the time it was released on July 16, Neil had moved on and was a month away from CSNY’s reunion mega-tour (perhaps worth a write-up itself).  Unlike his previous studio efforts, Neil enlisted the help of numerous musicians instead of a core band, including Rick Danko and Levon Helm of the Band.

If Tonight’s the Night was an emotional purge, On the Beach was part resignation to the bleakness that was his world view at the time, and part leaving it behind.  Hence the opening track, Walk On.  Young also tackles some of the sensational stories of the era in a manner that, as pointed out in the original Rolling Stone review of the album, puts listeners in the shoes of both the predators and the victims.  This is heard in Revolution Blues (Charles Manson, whom Young had known) and Ambulance Blues (Patty Hearst):

I saw today
In the entertainment section
There’s room at the top
For private detection.
To Mom and Dad
This just doesn’t matter,
But it’s either that
Or pay off the kidnapper – from Ambulance Blues

In Vampire Blues, Neil takes aim at the oil industry and perhaps our insatiable thirst for the black gold:

I’m a vampire, babe,
Suckin’ blood
From the earth
I’m a vampire, baby,
Suckin’ blood
From the earth.
Well, I’m a vampire, babe,
Sell you
Twenty barrels worth

Also of interest to fans and critics is the album jacket with its gaudy 70’s lawn furniture and pale yellow motif – even on the inside – right down to the can of Coors resting on the table and the fin of a Cadillac half buried in the sand like a crashed rocket (from better days?).  Under the table rests a newspaper with the headline:  Senator Buckley Calls for Nixon to Resign.  On the back of the jacket stands a solitary, rather pitiful looking palm tree in a pot.


Neil’s blazer makes him look like he just stepped out of the Monday Night Football broadcast booth with Howard Cosell and the gang.  Well, maybe not, but you get the picture.  Neil’s art director was Gary Burden, who passed away less than a month ago at the age of 84.  Burden also worked with Joni Mitchell, the Doors, and My Morning Jacket, and collaborated with famous rock photographer Henry Diltz.



I first listened to On the Beach when I managed to find a new-but-cut-out LP in the early 90’s when it was out of print, and it’s been in my regular rotation since.  I went without it for a couple of years when I foolishly lost track of my small LP collection, but replaced it on CD when it was re-released in 2003.

I’d like to wrap up Neil Young’s Ditch Trilogy with a bit of unsolicited social commentary:  While I don’t consider myself to be in a personal rut despite my enthusiasm for these emotionally charged albums, with regard to On the Beach, it feels very apropos of the current atmosphere in the US in my perception.  Coincidentally, a certain president is speaking at the convention of a certain organization of gun enthusiasts in my town on this very day.  I don’t know where we’re headed, and this album captures that mood perfectly for me.

So you be good to me
And I’ll be good to you,
And in this land of conditions
I’m not above suspicion
I won’t attack you,
But I won’t back you – from Revolution Blues


Side One:

  1. Walk On
  2. See the Sky About to Rain
  3. Revolution Blues
  4. For the Turnstiles
  5. Vampire Blues

Side Two:

  1. On the Beach
  2. Motion Pictures
  3. Ambulance Blues

In addition to the online citations I’ve included at the bottom of each edition of this series, I’d also recommend Jimmy McDonough’s solid biography of Neil Young, Shakey, which was published in 2002.

I’ll have a postscript to this little series next time ’round.

Image result for neil young book




Neil Young’s Ditch Trilogy, Pt. 3

Neil Young – Tonight’s the Night

I’m sorry. You don’t know these people. This means nothing to you. – Neil Young, in the liner notes to Tonight’s the Night.

Harrowing, boozy, bluesy, scary, druggy, world-weary, cracked, confrontational, emotionally apocalyptic, glorious mess, weirdo genius:  This is a sample of some of the words used by music critics over the years to describe the second album recorded in Neil Young’s Ditch Trilogy, though it was the final one to be released.  The reason for this is because Warner Bros. withheld the album for almost two years in hopes that Young would create something more commercially pleasing and less harrowing, boozy, scary…


Recorded in August and September of 1973 but not released until June of 1975, Tonight’s the Night was the first studio album Neil recorded after the drug-related deaths of friends Bruce Berry and Danny Whitten the year before, and it’s even more jarringly raw than its live predecessor, Time Fades Away, which wasn’t released until the month after the recording of Tonight’s the Night was wrapped up.  Confused?  Neil’s timeline from these years is almost as sloppy as his music, and that’s just fine with me.  This album is a no holds barred perpetuation of his abrasive, unapologetic catharsis.  He had money and fame; he could’ve slipped away from the public eye for a spell to deal with his grief in private.  Instead, he continued to share the trip into his personal heart of darkness with his fans because that’s what true artists do, take it or leave it.


Critics mostly took it from the day of its release, while his fans were a little slower to catch on to the beauty of its many imperfections.  But they did eventually.  Tonight’s the Night was recorded mostly live in the studio, primarily during one session in August, with his professional-yet-ragtag group the Santa Monica Flyers, featuring the Crazy Horse rhythm section of Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot, and a 22-year-old Nils Lofgren on guitar.  Right in the middle of the record is a creepy and haunting reminder of what it’s all about:  a live recording of Neil with Crazy Horse at the Fillmore East in 1970 with the late Whitten on vocals singing Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown, an upbeat rocker which makes light of the drug scene which ultimately consumed him.

The back of the Tonight’s the Night jacket.

I first delved into Uncle Neil’s catalog at the age of 18 in 1989 upon the release of Freedom.  That album, plus Ragged Glory, Rust Never Sleeps, Live Rust, After the Gold Rush, Harvest, and Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, was in my blood before I took the plunge with Tonight’s the Night.  I had picked it up, studied it, and returned it to its slot at Streetside Records on more than one occasion over a period of two or three years in the early 90’s.  I listened to it for the first time without a good understanding of what went into it and liked it, but only because I’d steeped myself in those albums listed above.  It was still a bit of a shock and an acquired taste for me, but eventually it clicked.  By the time it did, it had long been considered one of the best albums in rock history by various music publications.


Side One:

  1. Tonight’s the Night
  2. Speakin’ Out
  3. World on a String
  4. Borrowed Tune
  5. Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown
  6. Mellow My Mind

Side Two:

  1. Roll Another Number (For the Road)
  2. Albuquerque
  3. New Mama
  4. Lookout Joe
  5. Tired Eyes
  6. Tonight’s the Night (Part II)


Neil Young’s Ditch Trilogy, Pt. 2

Neil Young – Time Fades Away

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a band would release an album – hopefully a good one – then go on a concert tour heavily promoted by the record company to solidify the record’s place in the music world, and in turn sell more records.  Occasionally a live album from that tour would follow.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  Coming off his 1972 hit album Harvest, fans of Neil Young who bought tickets to see him and the Stray Gators on tour in early ’73 expected a show which featured that album and earlier hits.  But fans weren’t fully aware of the catharsis Young was undergoing at the time.  While the accepted truth that has developed over the years that concert-goers didn’t hear Harvest songs or any of their older favorites on this tour is a misnomer, neither the set lists nor the vibe of the shows were what they expected.


While rehearsing in late ’72 for the upcoming tour, Young dismissed guitarist and friend Danny Whitten from the group, giving him some cash and a plane ticket back to L.A.  Whitten, in the throes of heroin addiction, was simply unable to play.  Shattered, Whitten died of an overdose of Valium and alcohol the following day, sending an already unstable Neil reeling.

Danny Whitten

And with that, Neil Young and the Stray Gators set out on a three-month, 62 (!) show, tequila-soaked tour, combative with each other from the start.  Once the tour began, the band began demanding larger salaries, and as the nightly wake for Whitten wore on, Neil’s voice wore out.  Halfway through the tour, drummer Kenny Buttrey left and was replaced by Johnny Barbata.  Also, Young enlisted the help of old band mates David Crosby and Graham Nash to assist with vocals.

The resulting live album, Time Fades Away, was released on 10/15/73, and was met with positive reviews by critics, though many fans didn’t care for it at the time as it was seen as a complete departure from what he was known for.  Seven of its eight songs were written for that tour, the eighth a leftover from his solo 1971 tour.  It’s ragged and uneven, heavy but not overly loud.  It’s a perfect document of where he was emotionally at the time, but with the stress of the tour ingrained in his memory he considered it his worst album.  Young explained:

Money hassles among everyone concerned ruined this tour and record for me but I released it anyway so you folks could see what could happen if you lose it for a while. I was becoming more interested in an audio vérité approach than satisfying the public demands for a repetition of “Harvest.”

Eventually the album fell out of print and stayed there for years with Neil showing no interest in revisiting the tour.  Meanwhile, fan demand for its re-release grew until it finally reappeared on vinyl a couple of years ago, then on CD as part of the Original Release Series a year later.  As of this writing, it’s still not available on CD as a stand-alone release.  Thank goodness for bootlegs and good ol’ YouTube, since I refuse to re-purchase three albums I already own to get one I don’t.  Standouts on the release for me include Don’t Be Denied, L.A., Yonder Stands the Sinner, and the title track.

Neil has stated that his Archives Vol. 2 will include the title Time Fades Away II, with different material from the ’73 release.  While I like the original as it is, hopefully II would be a fuller example of what a typical show from the tour sounded like.  And again, that’s if and when it ever comes out.  Either way, the ’73 version is available to anyone who wants to hear it.  By the time it originally came out, Young was already further along in the ditch with another new batch of raw, beautifully grating tunes in his exploration of audio vérité.  He would continue to meet life’s demons head on, and for this fan it made for great art.


Side One:

  1. Time Fades Away
  2. Journey Through the Past
  3. Yonder Stands the Sinner
  4. L.A.
  5. Love in Mind

Side Two:

  1. Don’t Be Denied
  2. Bridge
  3. Last Dance






When Neil Young Found His Muse in the Ditch, Pt. 1

“Heart of Gold” put me in the middle of the road.  Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.  A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there. – Neil Young, from the liner notes to his 1977 compilation, Decade.

Loss, lament, despair, societal decay, and a general feeling of gloom:  These are a few of the elements that can comprise great art.  Life isn’t always rosy, and for artists who are able to express these sentiments effectively there will always be an audience.  It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but for those whom it touches, it can be very moving.  For me, Neil Young’s work hits that nerve.  That’s not to say I need to be in a melancholy frame of mind to listen to him, far from it.  There’s joy to be had when pressing on through sadness or the mundane, and if there’s one phase of Neil Young’s long career which encapsulates this philosophy, it’s the period from roughly 1973-1975 when he released three albums that came to be known as the Ditch Trilogy: Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and Tonight’s the Night.




While we continue to wait for his Archives, Vol. 2, which will cover this period even more in-depth (if and when it sees the light of day), and with his recent stand-alone archival release from this era, Roxy:  Tonight’s the Night Live, I thought I’d revisit the glorious doom of Neil’s time in the wilderness.  The factors which led Neil in this direction are well-known to his fans:  the dark side of the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, including the loss of his friends Danny Whitten (band member) and Bruce Berry (roadie) to drug overdoses, as well as national stories including the Manson Family, the Patty Hearst saga, the oil embargo, and Nixon.  Generally speaking, it was the overall demise of the hippie dream.

In the midst of all this, Young unexpectedly struck gold with his 4x Platinum Harvest album, released in February of 1972.  But his positive feelings about the accomplishment didn’t last long.  As Neil told Melody Maker in 1985:

I guess at that point I’d attained a lot of fame and everything that you dream about when you’re a teenager.  I was still only 23 or 24, and I realised I had a long way to go and this wasn’t going to be the most satisfying thing, just sittin’ around basking in the glory of having a hit record.  It’s really a very shallow experience, it’s actually a very empty experience…So I think subconsciously I set out to destroy that and rip it down, before it surrounded me.  I could feel a wall building up around me. 


Later in ’72, after a poorly received soundtrack to a documentary about Young that few people saw at the time, both titled Journey Through the Past, Neil would begin to tear down that wall in startling musical fashion.  As with his friend and musical peer Bob Dylan, he would unapologetically express where he was at that time through his music, fan base expectations be damned.  The feel-good sequel to Harvest wouldn’t arrive for another 20 years.  Neil’s journey through the present at that time was so rough that one of the three albums fell out of print and remained there until somewhat recently, with Young not wanting to revisit much of it.  However, not only have these three albums held up well over time, they actually continue to gain appreciation from critics and fans alike.  But before we look back at Shakey’s dramatic 90-degree turn, here’s a performance of a track from Harvest which hinted at the vibe to come: